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Distance learning is stressful, but I’m trying to see the hidden gifts

(Chelsea Charles for The Washington Post)

Back to school looks a little different this year. My dining room is a second-grade classroom. My office is a middle school. On the first day, I cried twice. One was a good cry, when my partner brought us doughnuts and helped out with the kids while I fetched a left-behind laptop from my ex-husband’s place. One cry was not so good. But my kids cried zero times. They’re teaching me how to roll with it.

Yes, on their first day of school, they were teaching me.

Our school district had been aiming for a hybrid model — two days a week in the classroom, socially distanced and masked, and three days virtual learning from home. But with coronavirus cases rising here in our Ohio county, and the largest school district, Columbus City Schools, opting for virtual learning for the first nine weeks, many other districts in our county followed suit. There is a chance, then, that my children might have the option to be back in the classroom at some point during the 2020-2021 school year, but for now they are home.

My 11-year-old daughter Zooms her way through a sixth-grade school day in my writing studio, a small room wrapped in windows. It’s full of bookcases, my turntable, my records. I give her a glass of water and a snack, and shut the French doors behind her. She opens her district-provided laptop, puts on her headphones, and except for one quick break between classes, doesn’t emerge until lunch.

Meanwhile, my 7-year-old son and I sit together at the dining room table, which is covered with colored folders, workbooks, markers, crayons and pencils. I lovingly call him my officemate.

On the second day of school, my officemate had to share three things he loves as a way to tell his classmates about himself. He shared his “Yellow Submarine” CD, his skateboard and his old hardcover copy of “Black Beauty.” I listened in, grinning and making eye contact with him across the table, over my own open laptop, while I tried to catch up on email.

That day, during my son’s 20 minutes of independent reading, the teacher asked the children to mute themselves on Zoom, go find a cozy place to read and then return to their computers for the next lesson. My officemate was curled up in his favorite turquoise reading chair, his feet up on the ottoman. From his laptop still open on the table across from me, I heard the tiny voice of a girl from his class who was unmuted: “What now, Mom?”

My heart caught in my throat.

“What now, Mom?” is what so many of us are hearing and feeling right now.

I’ve been self-employed for the past nine years, and I have joint custody of my two children, so while this isn’t easy, I can make it work with some juggling. But I had not anticipated being a second-grade teacher’s aide this year, in addition to freelance writing and editing, promoting my new book of essays (via Zoom events) and teaching in an MFA program. Time is an issue, but I’m very lucky: I can do my work from home. I can work after the children are in bed at night, or when they are at their father’s house. I have no idea how most working parents are doing this right now.

As challenging as this time is, I’m trying to see the hidden gifts — the ones tucked inside these big changes.

One is being able to be a part of my children’s school day. For the first few years they were in school, I walked them into their classrooms each morning and was able to see their cubbies, their class pets, their art and writing posted on the walls. I checked in with their teachers; I met the other parents.

So many school shootings later, that parent walk-in policy changed, and I was privy only to bits and pieces of their days — what they would tell me as we walked home from school, what the work in their take-home folders revealed, what I’d glean from teacher emails or school newsletters or parent-teacher conferences.

But now I live in their school. I’m sitting right there, listening along, helping find the right folder or workbook, keeping track of the time, making sure they’re fed.

Am I stressed out that I can’t work on these days, when normally I’d count on their school time as my work time? Yes. But that doesn’t negate the gifts.

My focus this year is on our health — both physical and mental. I am less concerned with the kids’ schoolwork than I am with their well-being. So I’m praising their adaptability, their patience, their effort, their ability to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. I’m trying to praise myself for these things, too. And I’m trying to carve out space for joy and pleasure however and whenever I can.

Some good did happen this summer. Just look at what these children accomplished.

We’re discovering the power of quick breaks — for a walk around the block with the dog, or Legos, or skateboarding for 10 minutes before the next Zoom class. We’re eating our meals on a picnic blanket in the front yard for as long as weather allows it. One day, the neighbor kids came over with their own lunches and their own blanket — plus some tomatoes warm from their garden — and the four of them had a socially distanced lunch on the lawn. They sat, ate, talked about their days. It was the closest thing possible to normal. But you know what? Maybe it was better than normal. I don’t have fond memories of the middle school cafeteria, do you? A blanket in the sun with people you’ve known all your life, and no worries about where to sit and with whom? I’ll take it.

For now, while the weather is warm, we’ll do as much schoolwork as we can outside, too. The other day, my son’s second-grade social studies work happened on a beach towel in the grass. He borrowed a clipboard from his sister, I cut him some apple slices and put them in a small plastic bowl, and we went out front to do his assignment: “Draw a picture of your family.” On the top of his paper, he drew the three of us: me, him, his sister. He added our dog, Phoebe. On the bottom half, he drew his dad, him again, his sister again. Everyone is smiling.

What now? This school year is not going as planned. Nothing this year has gone as planned. But we can do this, yes? We can do this, together, one day at a time.

Maggie Smith is the author of “Good Bones” and the forthcoming book “Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change.”

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